The Burlington Mail Terminal, a 90-year-old former mail-by-rail depot, spent nearly half its life crumbling under the stresses of neglect and disuse until one of the largest historic tax credit projects in Nebraska in the last decade launched it into the 21st century. Today, as a home to companies that predate the original structure — Boyd Jones being one of them — as well as startups working to form viable enterprises, the renamed Rail & Commerce Building is a nexus of the old and new, both in terms of tenants and design.
The project blended modern concepts with reimagined historic elements that nod to the building’s past among a broader district on the National Register of Historic Places: a massive mail chute was left in place and cut through to create a passageway to new restrooms. Portions of elevated observation galleries where postal supervisors would furtively monitor mail-sorting workers now serve as a chase for energy-efficient mechanical systems. A vault that once stored postal valuables was stripped away, leaving only the original door in place as a visual centerpiece in a restaurant/lounge floor plan. An open meeting area on the ground-level floor retained the original brick drive on which mail trucks used to travel for deliveries and pickups. And replica paned windows and wood-block flooring hark back to the building’s heyday of the 1920s and 1930s.
Below street level, the project team turned what was arguably the former mail terminal’s most obsolete feature into a significant asset. As originally built, street-level freight traffic traversed brick thoroughfares through the length of the building, while train traffic flowed through at track level 30 feet below. Given ample clearance from the track level to the original ceiling, the project team built an entire floor between street level and track level. This created a blank slate for smaller offices and a coworking space, and left enough room at track level for indoor parking.
Other renovations and rehabilitation of the aging building converted it into a significant steward of the environment. The building’s mass, new windows, and efficient hydronic mechanical systems contribute to energy efficiency. Combining on-site electricity generation from a rooftop solar array with renewable energy credits from Nebraska wind turbines will completely offset the building’s energy consumption. Inside, daylight sensors automatically adjust artificial light based on natural brightness, and a solar thermal system and hydro heat recovery system present opportunities to significantly reduce heating load and gas usage. These and other factors led Rail & Commerce to be recognized for energy efficiency by the American Council of Engineering Companies/Nebraska.
The finished building is now home to multiple corporate headquarters, a coworking community, and restaurant space. Each floor offers a variety of amenities; including a fitness center with locker rooms, kitchen facilities, game and break rooms for socialization, and customized open floor plans for improved working space.
Because tenants of the building wanted to celebrate their storied histories while also providing open collaborative workspaces and modern amenities to attract and retain talent, the design team was charged with a tall order: fulfilling the wishes and needs of tenants and their employees while preserving the historic character of the building. By all accounts, the project team succeeded in breathing new life into a structure that narrates a key chapter of the city’s past and will play a central role for companies helping shape its future.